Commentaries

The electric car is a technological cul-de-sac

October 6, 2009

The End Is Nigh is always an arresting headline, the end which is nigh now is the Age of Oil, following the deep thoughts of the boffins at Deutsche Bank.

OPEC accommodates investor demand

September 10, 2009

By keeping production targets unchanged despite swelling inventories and uncertainty about the outlook for oil consumption, OPEC has decided to accommodate rather than fight investors’ demands for a high level of inventories.
Forward cover has crept up to 62 days, well above the long-run average of 52-53 days OPEC members have previously indicated is their target, consistent with stable prices. But further cuts were never seriously on the agenda at this meeting, and seem unlikely to be seriously considered at the next one in December unless there is a shift in sentiment and a price collapse in the meantime.

No immediate oil shortage, but medium-term outlook uncertain

July 27, 2009

– John Kemp is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own –
   
   By John Kemp
   LONDON, July 27 (Reuters) – The oil market looks set to remain well supplied through 2010.
   The huge stockpile of crude oil and refined products now being stored around the world, together with more than 5 million barrels per day (bpd) of spare production capacity, half of it in Saudi Arabia, means the market has a substantial buffer against either supply or demand “surprises”.
   But a Reuters poll of supply and demand forecasts for 2010 highlights an unusual degree of uncertainty on the outlook as forecasters struggle to assess the combined effect of the deepest recession in 50 years as well as structural shifts in consumption patterns and production costs [ID:nLR342038].
   Uncertainty about supply and demand dynamics implies considerable uncertainty about how quickly the market will tighten again. Based on forecasts in the poll, cyclical slack could be absorbed as soon as the end of 2010 or as late as 2012.
   
   FORECAST DISPERSION
   The International Energy Agency (IEA), regarded by many as the benchmark forecaster for the oil market, projects crude oil consumption will rise 1.4 million bpd next year, reversing about half of the demand lost in 2008 (0.3 million bpd) and 2009 (2.4 million bpd) but still leaving consumption far below the 2007 peak (86.5 million bpd).
   Most growth is set to come from emerging markets (1.3 million bpd) such as the Middle East, China  and the rest of Asia with only a marginal contribution from the advanced industrial economies (0.1 million bpd).
   But the IEA is the most bullish forecaster in the survey. Others are more cautious. Estimates in the poll put the increase as low as 0.5 million bpd, with an average of just 0.9 million bpd.
   Similar uncertainty dominates supply projections. While IEA sees non-OPEC crude production rising 0.4 million bpd next year, other forecasters put growth as high as 0.9 million bpd or see a contraction of up to 0.6 million bpd.
   
   FORECASTING UNCERTAINTY
   The problem for all forecasters is how to assess the overlay from the largest cyclical variation in business activity and oil demand since the Second World War, as well as structural shifts in both consumption patterns and production costs, on longer-term trends in supply and demand:
   
   (1)  LONG-TERM TRENDS
   For the advanced industrial economies, oil consumption has been basically stable since 1997. Efficiency gains and the transfer of energy-intensive manufacturing industry to emerging markets have offset increases in GDP and transport demand.
   Marginal demand for crude has come almost entirely from emerging markets (up 11 million bpd between 1999 and 2007) especially the fast-growing economies of China, the rest of Asia, and the Middle East. The pattern is consistent with research showing oil demand rises steadily as per capita GDP rises from $5,000 to $20,000 before stabilising.
   On the supply side, underlying production from existing fields is falling by around 7 percent a year, according to the IEA. Producers need to bring on almost 6 million bpd of new capacity each year just to ensure output remains unchanged [ID: nLK174997].
   Much of the new production involves development of smaller, more expensive fields; often in difficult geological areas or expensive deepwater environments; employing costly techniques to enhance recovery rates (such as water injection); or involves unconventional resources such as Canada’s oil sands.
   Given enormous resources of conventional oil, bitumen, coal and gas, let alone methane hydrates, there is unlikely to be a real shortage of hydrocarbons for hundreds of years (long after combusting them has cooked the planet, if fears about global warming prove correct). But the industry’s rising cost structure means the days of cheap $20 oil are over forever, unless there is a major technological breakthrough in recovery and refining systems.
   
   (2)  DEEP CYCLE EFFECTS
   Overlaying these trends, the financial crisis has introduced the largest cyclical variation in both economic activity and oil consumption since 1945.
   The collapse of world trade has produced sharp declines in diesel and jet fuel consumption [ID:nLL657354]. This demand should return as the major economies start expanding again from Q4 2009 and world trade levels normalise. It will add back hundreds of thousands of barrels per day in consumption next year, but only once high inventories of both jet and distillates have been worked down [ID:nLN322311].
   On the supply side, the lasting impact is harder to gauge. While major oil companies have largely protected capital investment programmes, many smaller companies have cut exploration and production development expenditure sharply in a bid to conserve cashflow.
   The number of rotary rigs drilling exploration and production wells in the United States has halved since September 2008. For the time being, production has continued to increase, reflecting the lagged effects of the earlier period of high prices in 2004-2008. But past experience suggests the fall in new drilling activity could cut underlying production by as much as 500,000 bpd next year if not quickly reversed.
   The same pattern is repeated worldwide. OPEC’s capacity is set to rise sharply in 2009 and 2010 as new Saudi fields (Khurais, Shaybah and Nuayyim) planned during the years of high prices finally come online after lengthy construction delays. It will push Saudi Arabia’s maximum theoretical capacity to 12.5 million bpd compared with actual current output of around 8.2 million bpd, restoring a generous cushion of spare capacity to the market. But this will be gradually absorbed unless prices are sustained at a level high enough to continue incentivising new investment.
   Less clear is whether the price collapse will harm investment in the long-term. Following a rebound, current prices of $60-70 per barrel should be high enough to make most of the investments needed in the short-term economic. But the price gyration itself could make the industry more cautious about committing capital, slowing supply growth over the next 2-4 years and tightening the market by 2012-2015.
   
   (3)  STRUCTURAL BREAKS
   From the demand side, the shock caused by the earlier surge in prices has led to determined interest in conservation and substitution measures. Because many of these are embodied in legislation, they will not be reversed just because prices have fallen. In the United States, toughened ethanol blending requirements will displace an extra 30 million barrels of crude in 2010, followed by a further 16 million barrels in 2011 and 20 million in 2012.
   Price volatility, together with pressure for “decarbonisation” is pushing petroleum-derivatives out of the power stack in favour of cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas — as well as non-fossil sources, with heavy investment in windpower and solar systems [ID:nLD829860]. Cheaper prices may slow, but will not reverse, determined efforts to reduce dependence on conventional petroleum.
   Meanwhile rising costs are increasing the price-hurdle needed to sustain investment, meet demand growth and compensate for natural field declines. In a sign of the future, BP’s state-of-the-art Thunder Horse platform cost $5 billion and extracts oil from three intervals of oil as much as 4 miles below the surface of the ocean at pressures almost 1200 times the earth’s atmosphere.
   The poll’s uncertainty about near-term and future production reflects the growing challenge of maintaining sufficient, risky investment to keep the market adequately supplied, with a cushion of spare capacity, in the face of an increasingly tough technical environment.